Ion Rapid Transit - A
Ion Rapid Transit
Ion, stylized as ION, is an integrated public transportation network in the Regional Municipality of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. It is operated by Keolis and is part of the Grand River Transit (GRT) system, partially replacing GRT's Route 200 iXpress bus service. The section of the bus route serving Cambridge has been renamed "Ion Bus", and renumbered as 302. The first phase commenced operations on June 21, 2019, between the north end of Waterloo and the south end of Kitchener. A future extension of light rail to the downtown Galt area of Cambridge (Phase 2) is planned but construction may not begin on that line until 2025.
In 2009, an Environmental Assessment (EA) began to create a proposal of electrically-powered light rail transit through Kitchener and Waterloo, and adapted bus rapid transit from Kitchener to Cambridge. On June 24, 2009, Regional Council voted to approve the project, subject to funding from higher levels of government, which was in turn approved by council on June 15, 2011. This was followed by a community building strategy to guide development, identify key destinations, and strengthen regional connections. The strategy, led by Urban Strategies Inc. of Toronto, consulted hundreds of individuals and stakeholders from Cambridge, Kitchener, and Waterloo.
Construction began in August 2014 and service was expected to begin in late 2017; however, because of delays in the manufacture and delivery of rolling stock, the introduction of the light rail service was significantly delayed. The total cost of the system was estimated at $818 million, but in December 2017, the overruns were estimated to total approximately $50 million. The Province was expected to provide $25 million of that amount
According to the Region of Waterloo, the Ion network is named after the atom, which it describes as being “always in motion”.
In 2004, the Regional Municipality began an Individual Environmental Assessment to study the feasibility of constructing a rapid transit line to provide higher-order public transit service to the Region and to encourage more compact urban growth along the corridor.
The EA took a broader approach to studying possible routes and stations for the rapid transit line, examining several options such as utilizing existing tracks/roads and constructing new facilities. In keeping with legislation, the Environmental Assessment also examined ten possible transport technologies, including monorails and subways.
The EA as planned consisted of three phases:
Phase 1: Determine a preferred transportation strategy from options such as road expansion, improved conventional transit, and rapid transit. Phase 1 was completed in July 2006.
Phase 3: Design an implementation plan for the rapid transit system.
In June 2008, the Province of Ontario announced a new expedited Transit Project Assessment Process (Ontario Regulation 231/08). In August 2008, the Region notified the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) to advise that it would transition from the Individual Environmental Assessment to the expedited process. For that reason, Phase 3 of the Individual EA would not be completed.
On June 24, 2009, Regional Council approved the initiative and continued discussions with Provincial and Federal governments to obtain funding for the $790-million project. Light Rail Transit (LRT) was short-listed as the technology for the new rapid transit system. The Region decided on a staged approach, building light rail from Conestoga Mall to Fairview Park Mall, passing through Uptown Waterloo and Downtown Kitchener on the way. Adapted Bus Rapid Transit (aBRT) would be built from Fairview Park Mall to Ainslie Street terminal in Cambridge utilizing shoulder bypass lanes along Highways 8 and 401 during heavy traffic where speeds are often 40 km/h or less. As of June 2019, there is still no specific timeline for replacing the aBRT service to Cambridge with light rail.
Approved Light Rail System
On June 24, 2009, Regional Council approved LRT as the technology for rapid transit in Waterloo Region. Regional Council also approved a recommendation to implement the system in stages because ridership, development potential and capital and operating costs vary along the route.
The light rail system was approved by Regional Council with a vote of 15–1. Cambridge mayor Doug Craig cast the dissenting vote. Other Cambridge-area representatives joined Craig in voting against subsequent motions on the service's staging, feeling that running only buses to that city does them a disservice.
The Province of Ontario had promised to fund up to two thirds of the cost of the construction of a light rail or bus rapid transit system in Waterloo Region. However, in the summer of 2010, actual funding commitments from higher levels of government for the combined LRT and aBRT system were announced: $300 million from the province of Ontario, and $265 million (or up to 1/3 of the full cost) from the federal government. The provincial figure was disappointing to supporters, as the provincial government had previously promised to pay 2/3 of the cost. Regional council debated funding the remaining $200–300 million required for the project to go ahead as planned.
During public consultation for the project, concerns related to the light rail proposal focused on its relative service infrequency when compared with rapid transit systems in other cities (though it would still outperform the Region’s best bus services in its overall service capacity, and the frequency of many routes); the projected service frequency will be approximately 7.5 minutes. In addition, a light rail line would be limited by the narrow main streets of key downtown areas. A feasible proposal raised by the Region for dealing with this challenge would be to have light rail vehicles (LRVs) share space with traffic within core areas, somewhat resembling the traditional streetcar networks of many European cities, and of nearby Toronto. A bus rapid transit line would also face the challenge of the cramped core areas, and thus would also likely share space with traffic in core areas.
In late 2011, planning was well underway and preparations were being made. In October, a property on Dutton Drive in Waterloo, bordering the rail-line corridor where the LRT is planned to be installed, was purchased to serve as a maintenance and storage yard for the system's LRVs. The site, which was purchased for $6 million, will contain three buildings: the largest is 75,000 square feet (7,000 m2) and will house the operations centre and a repair shop; one will include a washing system; and the third is a 15,000 square feet (1,400 m2) wayside maintenance building that will house the repair truck fleet.
On July 10, 2013, it was reported that a deal was finalized with Metrolinx to join its contract with Bombardier Transportation for the purchase of 14 Flexity Freedom LRVs to form the system's initial fleet, with an option to purchase up to 14 more as the need arises. A further report on July 12, 2013 stated that the region would be purchasing 14 LRVs, with an option to buy 16 more.
The 14 vehicles are estimated to cost $92.4 million, an average of $6.6 million per vehicle. The cost breakdown is:
Vehicle Delivery and Testing
Production of the new vehicles was expected to begin in 2015 with the first to be delivered no later than August 2016 and all vehicles were to be received by the end of 2016. On April 13, 2016, it was reported that Bombardier had informed the transit authority that delivery of the vehicles would be delayed.
The region entered a joint agreement with Metrolinx and Bombardier in July 2013 for 14 LRVs, as well as an option to buy up to 14 more. Under the original agreement, the first vehicle was to be delivered no later than August 2016, and the 14th by December 2016.
On May 20, 2016, Bombardier announced that to avoid further delays it would shift construction of the vehicles for the Ion system from its Thunder Bay plant to another plant in Kingston, Ontario.
The first vehicle, number 501 (its ends are labelled 501A and 501B), arrived in Waterloo Region on February 24, 2017. However, it was not ready for testing as its operating software was incomplete. By mid-March 2017, the second to fifth vehicles were seen by a CTV reporter as under construction in the Kingston plant. Testing of vehicle 501 was scheduled to commence in May 2017 on the line between Northfield Drive and Silver Lake.
In early April 2017, the Region expected to receive a second LRV in June or July, but that was postponed to late August or early September. By the beginning of October 2017, the second LRV had arrived. The schedule then called for delivery of another each 15 days, for a total of 14 by year end. The year end target was missed.
On November 7, 2017, unpowered vehicle testing began on the tracks between Northfield Drive and Erb Street. An LRV was towed to check track clearances including along station platforms and to ensure continuous pantograph contact with the overhead electrical wiring.
On December 19, 2017, GrandLinq had its first successful test of a Flexity Freedom running under its own power at the Ion maintenance facility. The two-hour test was done at the speed of 10 km/h (6.2 mph) and "apparently went quite well", according to Coun. Tom Galloway. In 2018, testing beyond the maintenance facility was scheduled to start. By this date, Waterloo Region had three LRVs on site, which is the minimum number required to do an adequate test of the system.
A CBC report on December 21, 2017, indicated that the fourth vehicle was expected to be delivered before year-end. Six others were in final production and four were still in the assembly process. After the fourth vehicle was received in January, the first one was returned to Kingston for some additional work. At that time, five others were being tested by Bombardier. According to the schedule, the fourteenth and last LRV was expected to be delivered in February 2018 with full LRT service expected to start in spring 2018; however, this later became a June final delivery, with service start in December, then later to June 21, 2019. The final LRVs were delivered on December 6, 2018.
At a Regional council meeting on May 8, 2019, it was announced that the service would launch the following month, on June 21, 2019; service across all of Grand River Transit, both LRT and bus, was to be free of charge for eleven days, until Canada Day.
In August 2020, it was confirmed that part of a compensation package from Bombardier to settle shipping delays would be a fifteenth unit, provided free of charge, for the Ion fleet. It was delivered early March 2021.
Ion light rail vehicles are in service between 5 am and midnight daily with a frequency of every 10 minutes from 6 am to 10 pm on weekdays and 15 minutes at other times. The route is properly known as 301 ION Light Rail.
The maximum operating speed of Ion light rail vehicles is 50 km/h (31 mph) along city streets and 70 km/h (43 mph) along railway rights of way. However, in areas where there is high pedestrian traffic, the operating speed will be as low as 20–25 km/h (12–16 mph). The 19-kilometre (12 mi) trip from Conestoga Mall to Fairview Park Mall is scheduled take about 46 minutes for an average speed of about 25 km/h (16 mph). As a comparison, the average speed of Toronto's light rail Line 5 Eglinton will be 28 kilometres per hour (17 mph) and the average speed of subway Line 2 Bloor–Danforth is 32 kilometres per hour (20 mph). Note that while Ion operates completely on the surface, Line 5 is half underground, and Line 2 is completely road-separated.
At street intersections, Ion light rail vehicles do not use the traditional automotive green-yellow-red traffic signals for road traffic, but rather the traditional two-aspect transit signals that show a vertical white bar for "go" and a horizontal white bar for "stop". Ion light rail vehicles have transit signal priority at intersections.
Where a street crosses the Ion tracks located either along a railway right of way or along the side of a cross road, the crossing is protected by traditional railway crossing signals: drop gates, flashing red lights and a bell. Crossings so protected are (from north to south) at Northfield Drive, Bearinger Road, Columbia Street, University Avenue, Seagram Drive and Erb Street in Waterloo, and at Ottawa Street, Mill Street, Hayward Avenue, Block Line Road, Courtland Avenue and Wilson Avenue in Kitchener.
Canadian National Railway freight trains use the shared portion of the Waterloo Spur between 11 pm and 5 am. After crossing King Street, the northbound freight train joins the northbound Ion track at Caroline Street, cross over to the southbound Ion track just north of Erb Street and then continue north on the southbound track until just south of Northfield Drive. This train typically heads north just after 11pm while Ion service is still running. Northbound Ion LRVs wait at Waterloo Public Square and southbound Ion LRVs wait at Northfield for the freight train to pass. The southbound return trip takes the reverse path and must return before Ion service starts at 5 am or they will have to wait until the next evening. This trip usually occurs Monday and Thursday nights but as with most freight schedules it can sometimes vary. Since freight cars are wider than the LRVs, there are gauntlet tracks at the southbound track of Ion stations along the Waterloo Spur to keep freight trains from striking the station platforms. To further protect station platforms and also to protect the Ion catenary system, there is a safety system to detect oversized freight cars and automatically stop the train using derailers. The detectors are located at Willow Street and just north of Northfield Drive.
The route approved by Regional Council travels in a mix of on-road and off-road (in various existing rights-of-way) configurations. On December 2, 2017, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record reported the local economy had already been stimulated through the construction of new buildings near the route, in both Kitchener–Waterloo and Cambridge.
The Region approved a staged implementation plan for its rapid transit system:
Stage 1 – Implementation of LRT north of Fairview Park Mall and adapted Bus Rapid Transit south of Fairview Park Mall, including:
The stage 1 route is 19 kilometres (12 mi) long.
Stage 2 – Completion of a light rail transit system from Fairview Park in Kitchener to Ainslie Street in Cambridge. Commencement of Stage 2 to follow completion of Stage 1 as closely as possible.
Out of the seven groups that showed an interest in the project, by December 18, 2013, three consortiums had submitted bids to design, build, finance, operate and maintain the Ion system: